Nellie McKay will tell the story of a ‘Girl Named Bill’
Performance will wrap 2016-17 season
April 11, 2017
Actress, singer and songwriter Nellie McKay discovered jazz bandleader Billy Tipton through her mom.
"There was a wonderful book called 'Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton' by Diane Wood Middlebrook that my mother found in a thrift store years ago," McKay said during a telephone interview from Pennsylvania with The Park Record. "I thought it was an intriguing story and wanted to do something about it."
McKay was intrigued because Tipton, who played with George Meyer before forming the Billy Tipton Trio in the 1950s, was really a woman who lived her life as a man. Her secret wasn't discovered until her death from emphysema in 1989.
The story inspired McKay to create her show, "A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton," which will close the Park City Institute's 2016-17 Main Stage season on Saturday, April 15, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
"We play songs that relate to Billy's life and some are songs that Billy actually did," McKay said. "She was also interested in every style of music and played jazz, but also [played] in country-western swing bands and [loved] Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington."
During her research, McKay, who cited Teddy Wilson and Thelonious Monk as a couple of her own influences, found that Tipton could imitate an array of artists including Elvis Presley, Jimmy Durante or Liberace.
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"Billy was a wonderful entertainer," she said. "She was very playful and wasn't the self-serious artist."
The challenge McKay came up against was trying to touch on the different aspects of Tipton's life.
"There is so much to do," she said. "We were trying to put a person's whole life into a 75-minute show, so we needed to get the right tempo to match Billy's life. I was able to do that because I have a crack band and we are able to keep the flow going.
"We're fortunate that Billy made two albums ("Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano") so we could listen and enjoy her music. I would love to hear more of her radio broadcasts that are in the archives, because there is a treasure trove there."
McKay also wanted to add some of Tipton's little-known experiences into the show.
"As I was doing the research, I found so many things because there was so much to discover," she said. "I found that Billy was introduced to a whole world of performers that never made it to TV or films or record contracts."
Above all, McKay wanted to showcase how brave Tipton was to live the life she did, and bring that forth in this day when transgender issues are a hot topic of debate.
"Everything seems to be perpetually relevant," McKay said. "Billy was a real life magician. I've heard people say you can grow up and do whatever you want or become whoever you want to be, but she really did it."
McKay is grateful for the opportunity to return to Park City. The last time she played the Eccles Center was in 2014 with the Turtle Island Quartet.
"It's always such a joy to return to the Eccles Center," she said.
The Park City Institute will wrap up its 2016-17 Main Stage season with actress, singer, songwriter, musician and satirist Nellie McKay at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 15, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd. Tickets range from $29 to $79 and can be purchased by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org.